There’s pathos in the image of Imran Khan – cricketer extraordinaire and the descendant of Pashtun warriors – lying immobile in a hospital bed after an accident on the hustings, tweeting frantically that vote-rigging might have cost him victory in the Pakistani elections.
His victorious opponent, Nawaz Sharif, isn’t making life easier for him, suggesting that Mr. Khan abide by one of cricket’s central tenets and accept defeat graciously.
Mr. Khan has never been known as a gracious loser. But then again, he’s rarely needed to be. One of cricket’s greatest all-rounders, he’s had far more practice at being a gracious winner.
His greatest triumph came in 1987, when he led Pakistan to victory over England in a test match series played on English soil. President Zia ul-Haq later coaxed Mr. Khan out of retirement to captain a win at the 1992 Cricket World Cup – the first for the Pakistani team, which was always rich in potential but notoriously factionalized.
Mr. Khan could be forgiven for believing he could do no wrong. But he’s now obliged to face the bitter lesson that celebrity is a fickle companion, which can thwart political ambition even as it encourages it.
Cricketing prowess gave Mr. Khan an entrée into politics, but it hasn’t guaranteed electoral success. Although he continues to inspire hero worship in his native Lahore (less so in Karachi), his Tehreek-e-Insaf party was outpolled there by Mr. Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League.
There are reasons for Mr. Khan’s relative failure. It’s a cliché that cricket is a religion on the Indian subcontinent, but from the perspective of many Muslim clerics, even moderate ones, cricket is an enemy of religion, because it has people glued to their televisions when they should be at the mosque. One imam made the more pointed objection that Mr. Khan’s practice of polishing the cricket ball on his trousers had a sexually stimulating effect on Pakistani women.
In fairness to Mr. Khan, he is much more than a sporting icon with a handsome face. He is also a committed philanthropist, faithful to the Koranic injunction that wealth shouldn’t be hoarded but rather distributed for the public good.
He raised billions of rupees to build a cancer-treatment hospital in the name of his mother, who had died of the disease. The achievement gave him first-hand insight into Pakistan’s endemic corruption, but it prompted mutterings of hubris from his opponents and scarcely dented his reputation as a dilettante and playboy.
That reputation – the wrong kind of celebrity – derived from his cricketing days in England, where Mr. Khan was featured in the tabloids as much for his nightclub romances as his prowess on the pitch.
His protestations that he was hardly to blame for triggering erotomania in British women were somewhat disingenuous. He once appeared on a Daily Mirror centre spread, draped across a bed, wearing only a pair of briefs and a coy smile.
His highly publicized 1995 marriage to Jemima Goldsmith (the two are now amicably divorced) only compounded the problem. His bride happened to be the daughter of a fabulously rich Jewish financier – his Pakistani enemies promptly pronounced him part of a Zionist conspiracy against Islam.
So where does Mr. Khan, celebrity baggage in tow, go from here? Potentially, quite a long way, as Pakistani democracy emerges from the long shadow of military dictatorship. His party didn’t deliver the electoral tsunami he promised, but it might yet form the official opposition in the national legislature. Mr. Khan’s party swept to victory in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, and it will take over the provincial government in this critical region that borders Afghanistan and provides a haven for the Taliban.
Mr. Khan has vowed to reverse Pakistani policy in the region. He wants to talk with the Taliban, and he’s threatened to shoot down U.S. drones targeting their fighters. Whether he will have the capacity to do either is questionable, but the fact that his bailiwick straddles NATO’s supply lines between Afghanistan and the sea gives him considerable leverage.
His decisions will be critical for the future peace of the region. Let’s hope it’s the responsible, sober-minded statesman, not the incorrigible playboy, who will be making them.
John Sainsbury is a professor of history at Brock University.